A Silent Tribute Is Not What We Want For Our Memories

A great shot of my Zaidy, RCAF Squadron Leader Jack Cahan with his five grandkids from Remembrance Day, 2012

Watching the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, I was struck by the beautiful poetry of our Governor General’s words:

Freedom without peace is agony,
and peace without freedom is slavery,
and we will tolerate neither.
This is the truth we owe our dead.

Governor General David Johnston

In few words, he expresses deep truth. Freedom and peace must walk hand-in-hand. We cannot be satisfied with a world where one is absent or removed for the sake of the other, for such a world destroys the meaning of both. Freedom absent peace is neither free nor peaceful. The two are true partners.

Speaking with my grandfather (a retired RCAF Squadron Leader) later today, I let him know how proud and moved I was by his own words at a ceremony marking the day:

Reflecting on his remarks, I was warmed by the words he had to share with me:  it is comforting and important to know that this message is heard; that it is absorbed; that it internalized; that it is shared.

So as I observed my own solemn moment while watching the moment of silence during the ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, I was struck by an odd realization: A silent tribute is not what we should want. We should raise up our voices, shouting to the world: “We have not forgotten! We shall not forget! We will tell these stories with all of our might. We will share them with our children, that they might tell them for time eternal!” In that way, we shall ensure a peaceful freedom, and a free peace.

Of course, the moment of silent is an important symbolic measure. And it is almost always coupled with strong words of memory and memorial. But it cannot end there. Both silent reflection and active participation must go hand-in-hand, just like peace and freedom.

Later in his speech, Governor General Johnston quoted Rabbi Dow Marmur – father of my own teacher Rabbi Michael Marmur – speaking about the importance of memory to our identity as Canadians:

Without memory, there can be neither continuity nor identity.

Like Johnston and my grandfather, Rabbi Marmur himself recognizes the importance of embracing multiple values in pursuit of our goals. Moments of silent reflection are a part of our identity as Canadians when it comes to Remembrance Day, but these moments must also be matched by action to ensure continuity. It is our commitment to memory that plays a key role in uniting these values.

To say “we shall remember,” or “never again,” means not only to reflect, but also to engage and look forwards. It is an impassioned charge we say to ourselves, so that we may involve ourselves in a national project. Without a national memory, we risk forgetting ourselves.

On this day, and always, I must also reflect on how proud beyond words I am for my Zaidy and his exemplary model of service to Canada. His commitment to the Royal Canadian Air Force and to the Jewish War Veterans of Canada teaches what it means to place oneself in service of that which is greater than us all – our people and our values. He is a model of living a life dedicated fully to such service, and my family is so lucky to have him as our living patriarch.

On this, the most important of our national holidays, may we be moved to pair our silent reflection with our soaring voices, that we might have both peace and freedom, both continuity and identity.

November 11

A great shot of my Zaidy, RCAF Squadron Leader (ret) Jack Cahan with his five grandkids from Remembrance Day last year.

A couple months ago we were learning about the creation of civil religion in Israel and how in the early days of the State, there was a need to create days of national importance to help forge a sense of nationalist identity. Our (British) teacher remarked how every country needs to do this in their nascent days, including the United States. Afterwards – in an attempt to stand my ground as the only Canadian in our class –  I remarked to him (with that typical Canadian quasi-inferiority complex) that Canada is different, that we’re not an über-nationalist country, and that we don’t really have any national holidays of this import. At least not anymore in 2013.

He responded: “But you have Remembrance Day.”

After 30 years of living intimately close to the holiday, through ceremonies at school, parades with my Zaidy (a Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron Leader, ret.), and years of wearing poppies, this simply hadn’t occurred to me. I had aways felt the significance of the day, but didn’t realized its paramount place in Canadian culture until I was almost 10,000 kilometers away from home.

Rick Hansen writes today in the Globe and Mail that “Remembrance Day is one of the most important days we have on our national calendar.” I would go further and say that it is the most important day on the national calendar. Certainly, for most, Canada Day is simply a day off in the middle of the summer with fireworks at amusement parks and little nationalist sentiments. Victoria Day is an excuse to get drunk at the cottage. Most Canadians likely don’t know what the real meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving is.

But Remembrance Day is ceremoniously observed in schools, houses of worship, and national halls across the country. There is unity and solemnity in observing the day and remembering our national heroes together. We mark ourselves with a common symbol in our communal observance. We recite the same words of memory and memorial. To be sure, it may be the only day on the Canadian calendar that is on the level of civil religious observance.

Observing Remembrance Day from outside of Canada has taken on new significance for me. It has become much more intentional – requiring a special effort to mark the day and remember what it stands for, since it doesn’t just happen around me anymore. I suspect this might be akin to how Israelis feel about Judaism when they leave Israel and go down into the diaspora.

While I don’t write about family that much on this blog, keeping matters more to commentary on religion, philosophy, and other such boring matters, today, in keeping with the “religious” spirit of the day, I will break from tradition…

I am so blessed to have been raised closely by my Zaidy, who has imparted a deep appreciation of the role of the Canadian military in shaping the lives of Canadians – and specifically of Canadian Jews. Far from a hawkish or militaristic inculcation, he has taught me to understand and appreciate the personal way that Canadians have fought for each other, and how incredibly important it is to recognize, mark, and honour these commitments and sacrifices.

I am even more-so blessed that my Zaidy – RCAF Squadron Leader (ret.) Jack Cahan, will be turning 90 this December, and that I was able to see and talk with him this Remembrance Day, from 10,000 kilometers away. I am so proud to be his grandson, and I hope each day that I can carry just a fraction of his dedication and honour with me.